“Little Women” ( 2019)

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women” has a disparaging title for 21st century women. Granted the absent Marsh father, a Civil War chaplain, calls his four young daughters “little women” instead of “girls”; but, director Greta Gerwig does all she can to show us mature women. I miss not seeing children huddled around their mother, Marmee, yet Gerwig has given filmgoers something more: a quartet of passionate, rational women with discernment and heart to be loved again.

The film begins with Tracy Letts’ feet on his New York publisher’s desk and a fat cigar in his mouth. He orders Jo Marsh (Saoirse Ronan) to sit before he tells her that he will accept her manuscript with alterations. He espouses that “morals don’t sell”. Letts has a gleam in his eye as he pontificates on spicing her story up and making certain that her heroine either marries or dies. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “ The Vindication Of Women” (1798) comes to mind eighty years earlier. Director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig reminds women that we had not come much further in 1865.

“Little Women” (2019) jumps back and forth in time and in place. The screen tells us it is seven years earlier and we are in Concord, Massachusetts. Here we are reintroduced to the four Marsh girls and their mother, Marmee ( Laura Dern). Meg, the eldest is the most conventional. Emma Watson does little to draw out her character. Saoirse Ronan is stunning as Jo, as is Florence Pugh as the youngest, Amy. Pugh’s Amy is, in fact, is my favorite. Her deep voice and psychological insight made her wiser than her years. Timothee C. did not seem her match. Amy, also, held her own in the scenes with Meryl Streep ( Auntie Marsh). Amy comes to life not as a selfish and jealous baby sister of Jo, but as an brutally honest and insightful woman. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) looked too healthy for death, but the swelling music of composer and conductor Alexandre Desplat helps. The windy beach scene with Jo is grand. Beth tells her sister that she is not afraid of death. For Beth, death is like the tide going out very slowly.

The cinematography and score are lush. The film’s start slow. Too many long scenes packed with kite-flying, ice-skating, play-acting, piano playing, and painting. I noticed lots of fake-joy on female faces in Christmas scenes. And Jo’s shoulder-thrusting walk got on my nerves. The book binding and gold-gilt embossing of Jo’s first book is more evocative and one of my favorite scenes. Chris Cooper’s Mr. Lawrence stood out in the few male roles, as did Tracy Letts. Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie was too foppish for me. All in all,Greta Gerwig’s production has received more positive press than the final production warrants. A nice walk down memory lane.

“The Post”

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks do such a masterful job playing  Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee that we forget that we are watching top-notch actors. Their familar faces meld into the Kay and Ben, the historic figures “The Post” makes them. We are reminded that homage should be paid to those who stand up for democratic ideals, freedom of the press being one of the most important for any truth-seeking citizen.

Graham and Bradlee, publisher and editor, respectively, had to decide in 1971 whether to risk the newspaper and prison to publish classified history. The films  “All The President’s Men” ( 1976 ) and “ Spotlight”  ( 2015 ) have used the same material. “The Post” holds its own in this “fake news” Trump-time.

The Pentagon Papers and the story of the New York Times and The Washington Post in publishing them is recreated under Stephen Spielberg’s expert direction. The pacing, the personal relationships, the networking of sources, and the egos and the character of pure journalism pervade.

Four American Presidents misled the nation by championing the Viet Nam war. Daniel Ellsberg photocopied 4,000 of the 7,000 classified government documents housed at the Rand Corporation which systematically showed that Congress and the public were kept from the truth. As his colleagues recalled, “ he ‘doved’ pretty hard.” I hope the 86 year-old Ellsberg enjoys this film.

For Streep’s pregnant pauses, her yelps, her small gestures like straightening her belt all make Graham so real. She both snores at her desk and  empathizes with the families of dead soldiers. Streep can deliver the punch line softly: “ I’m asking your advise, not your permission.” Likewise,  Hanks adds a toughness and an insight to editor Bradlee that show how competitiveness was part of the journalistic trade. When Kay says, “ Ben sets his mind to plunder” , Hanks is believable as a Viking.  Tracy Letts is memorable as a conservative board member. Daniel Ellsberg, played understatedly by Matthew Rhys; and Bruce Greenwood, playing an almost physical double to Robert McNamara, further perfect the casting.

Boardrooms, newsrooms, closeted offices, restaurants, and private residences keep the settings interesting. The lino-type machines and the hand-tied  bundles of newsprint are nostalgic, ( as are Thom McCann shoe boxes) ,and the presses running are applaud-worthy. Parties where the men and women separate, where the men talk policy and the women discuss Laurence Durrell novels are the norm.

Writers, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer seamlessly incorporate the struggle of women to gain full respect and power. Sarah Paulson as Ben’s wife, Antoinette Bradlee, gives a great performance voicing the bravery of Kay Graham. President Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, tried to halt any chance of publication that proved 30 years of government lying. Henry Kissinger believed “ people need be put to the torch” for security breaches. The fact that Graham’s family paper was going public further complicated the decision to print.

When Hanks intones, “ The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.” ,we think of Ellsberg willing to go to prison to stop a war. And, we especially, think of Katherine Graham willing to make a decision that could kill her newspaper, and her family’s reputation, and her three daughters’ fortunes.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 vote in favor of freedom of the press, and Judge Black’s words: “ the press serves to the governed, not to the governor” , could not ring any clearer for this  2018 viewer.


“Florence Foster Jenkins”

The French film ” Marguerite” was reviewed April 2, 2016 in my blog <www.filmflamb.wordpress.com.>  Five  months later, I find myself reviewing  the American version of this  deluded songstress.  Both  quasi- biographical takes of the Florence Foster Jenkins story are worthy of genuflection.

Director Stephen Frears, of ” Philomena” fame, ( reviewed February 12th , 2015) and the  talented writer Nicholas Martin  bring  us a sweeter tale. As Huge Grant , in a tad more snarky than saccharine aside,  says ” ours is a very happy world”.

Grant provides the best performance of his career as Jenkin’s charmingly Earlish husband and caregiver. He knows how his bread is buttered. Half cad, half protector, Grant has never been more tender as he removes his wife’s glued on lashes and wig. As the suave, privileged and ” betuxed” St. Clair, he is at home with ,” A taxi if I may”.

He controls all he can. In one scene, a half dozen auditioning pianists are sitting and waiting to vie for a  well-paid position. Grant glides by and admonishes them with ” those chairs are not for practical use, you have been told.” He is both touching and touchy, devoted and self-serving, a fawner  and a scoffer, both loyal and disloyal. Even with Meryl Streep’s admirable performance, Grant is the star here. We have never seen him better. “Reading a little Austen” may be my favorite line!  As is  his twinkling “love takes many forms”.

The French film  is more true to the actual meaning of Jenkins’ life. Both films include the mistress and the accompanist/pianist, but in strikingly different ways. In “Marguerite”, Florence spots her husband with his mistress and is devastated rather than like in this film, having him actually live in a love/party nest that she pays for. In this American film,Mistress Kathleen is named and lives as a demanding second wife with St. Clair Bayfield.

Costuming is over the top in both films including Victoria Secret angel wings to turbans , tiaras, and pearls.  Streep’s headdresses  shimmer with her every screech. From the beginning tableaux, she is the “deus ex machina” of the screen. We expect the best from her. Here she give the worst ~the best, and does not disappoint. Her “stay the night” oozes loneliness, and her briefcase lugging underscores that she knows inherently where her power lies. We all want loyalty. She knows deep down that she buys hers.

Streep does a wonderfully understated scene as she explains to her pianist Cosme McMoon ( Simon Helberg ) that she has dealt with the ravages of syphilis for fifty- years, her first husband’s ” gift”!  At other times, she seems to be channeling Lucille Ball ( not a bad thing). The maestro’s  litany of instructions: ” Raise the soft palate”, “On the breath”, “Use the air”, ” Project forward”, ” Find the breath, Florence” lead to  hysterical results.

Simon Helberg rounds out the incredible acting . As Cosme McMoon, his mime-like expressions when Streep begins her caterwauling are priceless. It is through his questioning  and their conversing that we learn how she met her second husband and see how sharp objects unbalance the little ballast that she has. When they play Chopin together, it is marvelously sad. There are some funny touches. Florence is fond of music, yes, but also of sandwiches and potato salad. One image has a server scooping out large serving spoonfuls from a bath tub.

The French film’s setting is more opulent, 1920  Gatsby style. There are fifty or more servants, marbled entryways and gardened grounds. The American film is more Victorian in decor with only one servant, Kitty.  The American film begins in New York, 1944, the year of Jenkins ‘s death. I liked the darker French version with its theme of lust for fame. The American “Florence Jenkins Foster” has Foster comparing herself to Churchill,  while bringing in war veterans, Cole Porter and Tallullah Bankhead. It is more farcical and underscores ” singing your heart out”. The French film was more vainglorious spectacle.

Streep’s death- bed remarks of ” no one can say I didn’t sing” has that ” at least I tried” kind of ring. The French are a tad more demanding  and judgmental of life choices.


“Ricki And The Flash”

The disapproving and judgmental looks falling off the wedding guests as Meryl Streep returns to Indianapolis for her son’s formal wedding are a huge part of the climatic scene in “Ricki And The Flash”. Streep,as Linda, with the stage name of “Ricki Rendazzo”, has made some unconventional choices in the pursuit of a steel-guitar and vocal career. Her ex-husband and three children have adjusted and matured, and moved on; but,their feelings of abandonment linger. Never making it out of the San Fernando Valley and financially broke,Ricki is still secure in her decision to follow her dream even as she files for bankruptcy. Yes, Ricki is a bit of a narcissist, a fame seeker;but she has a sweet soul. She makes instant friends with the family’s white, standard poodle,Sigma,who gives such a perfect, poodle-true performance that I thought I was watching my own family dog.

When Pete Brummel, Ricki’s worried ex(Kevin Kline) calls asking for Linda’s help with their only daughter’s catatonic reaction to being abandoned by her husband Max, Ricki feels a surge of remorse. Their daughter,Julie,played beautifully by Steep’s real daughter, Maime Gummer, sees herself abandoned again. Modern family dynamics are set in edgy dialogue which is entertaining while being real. Gummer’s first appearance is unhinged! She goes on to show a remarkable amount of varied emotions,just like her real life mother.

Landing at Weir Cook International,Streep adopts her persona in gleeful 1978 abandon,floral luggage and all. If as she says “she has given up a lot to become a rock star”, she has added blue henna-dyed skin bracelets,braided one side locks,and rings on every finger. Lug soled boots keep the beat and blue nails and shadow gloss her further out of the mainstream. We have a clash of cultures, here. Linda is a tad jealous of Pete and his wife Maureen’s privileged life. She comments on their home’s massive rooms and huge ceilings,and Pete admits he feels often like he is living in Monticello. Mo,Maureen, Pete’s wife and de facto mother to Linda’s children,is visiting her ailing father,so Pete readjusts his boundaries and allows Linda to save motel money and board with them. She snoops in the fridge,does some mischief with the “clean” “dirty” dishwasher sign, and shows disdain for all the wooden platitudes decorating the counters,but the family photos emotionally jar.

When Mo returns, she is in control as the traditional mom making lovely brioche breakfasts and overseeing therapy sessions. Again, acted beautifully by Audra McDonald, we have another strong woman who doesn’t fall into stereotype. Mo oozes confidence, warmth and common sense assurance. While wearing Mo’s robe, Linda tries to gain a hierarchical stance,” You know Pete still loves me”, Mo disarms Linda with a smile and, “I’ll give you that.” It is a telling scene, and McDonald makes the most of it. These women are making this family work.

I wish the few Indianapolis scenes were actually filmed in Indy. It would have been fun to recognize streets and locales,but our state’s taxing of the arts does not make this financially feasible.The Gummers are often in Indianapolis,so the wedding invitation made with flower seeds rooted in the paper fiber was donned as “Hoosier shit” by Linda in explanation. Southern-Mid-Westerners plant lots of seedlings,and they are self-deprecating to a fault. Likewise, I wish the editing in the film were better. Streep sings and strums a little too much. But,this may have been a showcase to underline how Streep can do about anything! Her relationship with her lead guitarist,Greg ( Rick Springfield) adds depth, and some astute moralizing. Greg is no pushover. His loving sacrifice comes with the admonishment that,”it doesn’t matter if our kids love us. It is not our kids’ job to love us ;it is our job to love them”.

Enjoy how well Streep’s character is developed. Linda’s cashier job at a California “Total Foods” store leaves her forever attaching numbered codes to produce~an added Ricki foible. And being reminded to exude gratitude by her youngster manager adds a flash of recognition and pathos. Ricki’s every check-out guest gets that special smile, and we get ring codes like “arugula #984”! Her parenting forays are not bad, and her final gift is no “flash in the pan”. Listen to those lyrics.

Everyone looks like they had fun on this set, and I did not feel that I wasted my time.Screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno” 2007) provides ample material. I particularly enjoyed Streep’s asides. After being admonished for airing “personal business” in a restaurant, she openly criticizes a father for trying to shield his young daughter, yet instantly piping in that she loves the child’s name- Journey.

Linda’s sons Josh and Adam add to the family’s stinging banter. As Adam corrects his mother by stating that he was born gay,Linda chirps back that she was born Ricki. Husband Pete seems to be keeping the familiar score,and he seems to delight in giving that one to Linda. Digs like Julie’s ,”OMG,get a camera, she is parenting” are cringingly funny. Pete’s “Rubbermaid memorabilia” and marijuana stash generate some loving sequences. And Riki is funny. While seated separately from the family at her son’s wedding,Ricki is asked by a guest how she met the groom. Her response is “Caesarian section”.

Song lyrics continue to be used to layer thematic meaning in many recent films. Here Director Jonathan Demme uses a perfect “gonna get lost in Rock and Roll and drift away”to give us a paean to music more than to the quest for fame. When Adam slings,”Historically, you don’t really give a damn” in his mother’s direction,Ricki Rendazzo’s craggy “my love,love,love will not let you down” seems to be directed at her children. “Mama Mia” infectious, pleasant and real,with the exception of the use of the word “crullers”, Hoosiers just say “pastries” or “donuts”. A fun summer flick that has the audience thinking about the choices we make and why.